Lake Erie's Toldeo Harbor Lighthouse.
  • Lake Erie's Toldeo Harbor Lighthouse.
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Last summer, I stayed with a close friend of mine for almost three months in a small city called Stowe, Ohio.

Not once during my local travels and explorations of the Buckeye State did I ever hear a mention of the Ohio State Park Lodges. Not even from my friend. It’s probably due to the fact that these hidden gems are not well known to many – including some who live in Ohio.

What's even more amazing is that the State Lodges are not just about camping and roughing it in the outdoors; they offer slices of sophistication for a working-class budget so as to enjoy nature and the outdoors. As one of my travel buddies noted, “The Ohio State Lodges are equally on par with the best of the National Park Lodges.”

Not a surprising statement when I found out that Xanterra manages the day-to-day operations. They're the same eco-conscious outfit that does such a superb job in running many of the National Park lodges hotels and lodges, from Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Death Valley National Park. (Other locations include Crater Lake, Zion and Rocky Mountain National Parks, as well as Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel). Xanterra is all about striving for sustainability while minimizing environmental footprints.

I was more than a little surprised by both the mountain culture at Salt Fork State Lodge and the shore and resort life at Maumee Bay in Ohio this year. I had fond experiences at both places – each was unique with its own character.

The pool at Salt Fork State Lodge.

Salt Fork State Lodge

Located in the heart of Guernsey County, a region of forested hills and verdant meadows, Salt Fork State Park is Ohio’s largest state park. It's situated closest to Pittsburgh, with a driving time of about 1 hour 50 minutes, and Columbus, Ohio, about 92 miles away.

Open year-round, except for the 18-hole golf course clubhouse (which is closed from January through mid-March), the lodge offers 148 cabin-style guestrooms with a minimalist but functional decor. The swimming pool is the activity hub during the summer, supplemented with fishing, boating from two marinas, paintball, golf, tennis, and the latest trend: geocaching. Close by is the historic town of Cambridge, home of the rare Cambridge glass and site for the Hopalong Cassidy Festival.

Up close with a giraffe in The Wilds.

The Wilds is a “must see” off-property activity, home to rare and endangered species from around the world. Located about 90 minutes east of Columbus, Ohio, this is a private, non-profit safari park and conservation center that offers “up close and personal” encounters.

Splurge on the 2 ½ hour Wildside Tour at $125: you'll see mammals in their open-range habitat such as the endangered Przewalski’s wild horse and two-humped Bactrian camel, and the near-threatened two-horned Southern White rhino. Chances are you may even have an opportunity to feed the more common giraffe. Ziplining, horseback riding and fishing are also offered.

Maumee Bay State Park Lodge

For me, the best kept secret in Ohio is Maumee Bay State Park Lodge and Conference Center. This is the newest of the Ohio State Lodges and offers a contemporary resort experience along the shores of Lake Erie unparalleled for the price. Set in the midst of a 1,850-acre state park, Maumee Bay offers 120 modern guestrooms all with private balcony/patio. Plus, there are 24 cottages with fireplaces to accommodate large families.

An Arthur-Hills-designed golf course makes you feel more like you're playing on championship links in Scotland vice Ohio. And the Trautman Nature Center is just a stone’s throw from the Lodge entrance. Pool, shuffleboard, volleyball, and horseshoes are all available on the property as is a fitness facility and racquetball courts.

Birding and fishing are also big here. Lake Erie's considered the “Walleye Capital of the World,” so this is obviously a great place to catch the delectable freshwater fish. And Maumee Bay might be the best place in the U.S. to see and hear the sweet melody of migrating warblers in the spring – probably why it's called the “Warbler Capital of the World.” In fact, the lodge was host to the 2013 Biggest Week in American Birding.

Though there are other activities like biking, geocaching, paddle boating, canoeing and jet skiing,

I particularly enjoyed taking a private tour boat out to the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse (top). The 1904 structure stands where Lake Erie and Maumee Bay meets, and it is completely surrounded by water. The original Fennel lens, now on display in the lobby of the lodge, was a weighted clockwork mechanism that allowed the light to rotate and be seen for many miles.

Finally, don’t miss the chance to travel by boat to the nearby waterfront of Toledo, Ohio – the “Water Recreational Capital of the Midwest.” The Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion, Libby Glass Factory Outlet, and the Toledo Zoo make it worth the stop.

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